A Loophole in Time

I discovered that with a little effort, I could shape time, in the same way that the wind shapes a sand dune

by Diane Ackerman
alarm clock image
Photograph: Shutterstock.com

I’ve heeded all sorts of alarm clocks: the jangling hammer and bell of a moonfaced metal demon, the buzz saw that chews dreams apart, the menacing pings that rival a dump truck backing up, the ascending shriek of a digital banshee, an iPhone’s polite din and that old two-timer, the snooze alarm. Jarred awake, I’d feel rushed before my feet hit the ground, spurred on by obligations—work to do, appointments to make, promises to keep, planes to catch.

What all alarm clocks have in common is a swift kick in the sleep, a way to grab you by the nerve endings and yell, “Rush, rush! You’re nearly late!” The name says it all: An “alarm” clock is time’s enforcer rubbing in just how harried, overworked and overcommitted you truly feel. The whole point is discomfort, and kowtowing to our homegrown gods of chronicity, even though a different kind of time, seasonal time, surrounds us, whispering on a far more ancient level straight into every cell and bone.

But alarm clocks changed for me after my husband had a stroke several years ago and could no longer speak. In the cruelest of ironies for an author-professor with a wordsmith wife, the stroke mainly wiped out the key language areas of his brain. I needed to find a way for us to communicate again, wordlessly, in part to offset the strain all the caregiving added to my busy life. It took years, and many dramas, but together we found ingenious ways to rewire his brain for language, help him return to writing and even create a new love story. Still, in the beginning, life felt searingly bleak. How do you communicate with a partner who can’t speak? Fortunately, bodies have their own palaver, deep-seated gestures and facial expressions older than the mesas. The less we could talk, the more important that palaver became, as did the eloquent language of affection.

One morning I began a custom that eased the fabric of our lives and continues still. I start the day with cuddling, snogging and generally being slow and cozy together for 30 to 45 minutes before work. During that loophole in time, snuggled up under the aptly named comforter, I can lose myself in the world of sensations, noting the caramel scent of skin; how disarrayed hair may resemble a flock of goats; the fragile contours of a shoulder blade; or the lofty weight of the covers. As one yawn brings on a contagion of others, I indulge in the sweet relief of stretching muscles and tendons. It’s wonderful to pull up the covers and not let the day in after you—even for the briefest while—as you dawdle in a soft igloo of sheets and pillows, safe from the rest of the world. How apelike it seems and how ancient it is, the deep pleasure that all mammals feel in being cozy. The toasty bed is just another night nest of sorts, a bedchamber that primates in the wild build, too. Mother gorillas teach their young how to fashion one, and in our shadowy past the improved sleep afforded by night nests may have helped our brains expand. Like any other primate, I relish the radiant warmth that life-forms emit when they’re bundled up together. In the aftermath of my husband’s stroke, I learned that these cuddle moments are like ripples in time. I discovered that with a little effort, I could shape time, in the same way that the wind shapes a sand dune.

So important has this tradition become that on days with early appointments, I like to set my alarm clock even earlier than need be. Then, instead of enforcing time, the alarm helps defy it by creating a much needed spell of slow, nonverbal time, when I can shirk worries, ignore work and concentrate on touch instead, communicating wordlessly. We’re programmed to bolt at the sound of an alarm, but it can also awaken us to what really matters. Church bells draw one to prayer, school bells call one to learn. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, a bell may be rung several times each day, just to remind listeners to curb the crazy pace of their thoughts, limp home from a battlefield of distractions and focus on the present moment.

Originally published in the April 2012 issue

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